Where have all the polymaths gone?

This week it will be Nicolas Copernicus’s 600th birthday. Copernicus belongs to the club of superswots nicolas-copernicusknown as polymaths which, like many membership organizations nowadays, is struggling.

The original polymath was Eratosthenes: pentathlete, librarian of Alexandria, philosopher and founder of Geography (amongst other accomplishments). He had, as our picture shows, an absolutely enormous brain. He was220px-Portrait_of_Eratosthenes a contemporary of another polymath, Archimedes.

In the first millennium AD, the best all-rounders tended to come from the Arab world. We often hear that it was Muslim scholars who kept much of Greece’s accomplishments alive until the Scholastics rediscovered them; to a great extent this was thanks to Al-Kindi, who, though perhaps not much of an innovator, absorbed and re-presented an absolutely vast amount of information, effectively founded The House of Wisdom in Baghdad, and popularized the Indian system of numbering which is now used by everyone [which in time led to the widespread misunderstanding that they are Arabic numerals].

Maqamat_haririAl-Kindi’s contemporaries at the House of Wisdom, the barnstorming Buna Musa brothers, Ahmad, Muhammad and Hasan, translated classical works from Greek, Latin and Chinese, took great strides in Geometry and produced the Book of Ingenious Devices, essentially a bunch of designs for really cool toys. Their father had been a highwayman who became a court astronomer, which was fine during the Islamic Golden Age.

With the beginning of the second millennium, the archipelago of Great Minds (or at least the ones we know about) arcs gracefully north-west, via Maimonides and Averroes, to revered churchmen (and at least one churchwoman) in Northern Europe: Albert the Great, Hildegard, Roger Bacon and then the brainy Pole Copernicus.

So what happened to the polymaths? I suppose the obvious answer is that with academic disciplines becoming a lot more advanced than they once were, you would go mad if you tried to excel in more than one field. There are fewer things left to discover; the game has changed.

Another might be that truly great minds can only flourish in truly great eras, and we don’t live in one of those. Depressing but there it is. The golden age of Islam ended centuries before Islamic culture actually realised it was going backward. Al-Kindi’s omnivorous reading was possible thanks to the enlightened Mutazillite philosophy which dominated in the early years. After its defeat by the anti-intellectual Asharites, the greatest Islamic learning was pushed to the fringes of the Empire and was to be found in Andalusia, and then, eventually, nowhere at all.


Ratzinger the Radical – Kueng the Conformist

ratzAt about 2pm on the day the Pope made his announcement, I switched on BBC news and was delighted to witness the following:

ANCHORMAN: And we can now go over live to Munich, Benedict’s hometown (sic) where our correspondent has been assessing the Pope’s legacy.

CORRESPONDENT: Thanks Jim. The theologian Hans Ku…

ANCHORMAN: We seem to be having some technical difficulties here… we’ll try and get back to Munich as soon as we can. Now with all the business news…

Divine intervention? Who knows, but sadly it was merely a stay of execution.

The Kuengian criticism of Benedict is this: that Ratzinger, the sometime enfant terrible, was  scared by the fallout from Humanae Vitae. That he was horrified by the upheavals of 1968. That this experience turned a radical young priest into a reactionary “panzerkardinal” and a bitter, misanthropic Pope. It is, if not the most widespread, certainly the most annoying of all the shallow punditry of the past week.

Most annoying because the opposite is true. Most annoying because not Ratzinger but Kueng, and many like him are the ones who couldn’t read the signs of the times in 1968.

Most annoying because if we are asked ‘what is the legacy?’ and we allow ourselves to be drawn into this Blairite silliness of a question, the best answer we can give is to say: “this man is a  radical thinker in the very best sense; he is a radical, and this radicalism has been played out in front of you though you can’t see it, and the reason you can’t see it is because you imagine yourselves to be radicals when in fact you are conformists.”

The problem surely is that Kueng et al embraced ‘radicalism’ for its own sake. They lived in a ‘radical’ decade and they wanted to fit in, and therefore jumped on every hippie charabanc that would take them. Theirs was a false radicalism because ‘radical’, literally, means ‘to do with the roots’, the radix . But they had, and have, little interest in roots.

Benedict’s radicalism is true radicalism. By insisting that we recover our ‘patrimony’, as he did in his pontificate-defining address to the Curia in 2005, he calls us to a much stronger, more sensible starting point for a dialogue with modernity. Stronger because it strips away the stridency and the triumphal shell which built around the Church during the age of Christendom, and exposes the teaching of Jesus in all its simplicity and purity.

In particular, it is his teaching on relations between the Church and the modern state, enunciated with such clarity and reasonableness in Westminster Hall in 2010 and the Bundestag in 2011 (and indeed before his election in his famous debate with Juergen Habermas),  which I believe we will remember him by. It is the fruit of a radical, imaginative way of thinking and it gives us a basis for a dialogue we need urgently to pursue. Perhaps we will talk in the future, if you will excuse the pun, about Benedict’s Theology of the Body Politic as reverently as we talk today about John Paul’s Theology of the Body.

Truth, what is truth?

By far the most irritating part of a pending papal election is the increased coverage the Church receives in the editorial pages of the newspapers and on evening news programmes.

Those who at all other times positively revel in their profound ignorance of the Church’s teaching suddenly begin opining with pontifical authority on ‘the challenges facing the Church’ or, more often, ‘what the next pope must do’ to stave off ecclesial cataclysm.

When a token effort is made to bring in someone with some actual learning on the subject, inevitably they trot out the same ‘progressive voices’ from schismatic universities; a chorus line of feminists and failed priests, of mad hair and bad teeth, of eccentric knitwear and disappointing breasts.

The same hackneyed themes are canted over and again: the next pope must engage with the issue of “wimin’s ordination” and at last repeal the absurd teachings on homosexuality. Diarmaid McCullough, offering to meet reality halfway, has predicted one more ‘traditionalist pope’ before an ‘explosion’ in the Church.

The shrewish insistence on what the Church must do is enough to drive one mad.

Refreshingly, this time around there have been some voices on sanity and orthodoxy trying to make themselves heard. Brave souls like Tim Stanley at the Telegraph and Ashley McGuire at the Washington Post have both posted coherent rebuttals to the nonsense hogging the print pages. It’s a nice by product of the ‘e-‘ era that people like them can offer some counterpoint under their paper’s banner head.

They offer a patient, if justifiably annoyed, explanation that the teaching of the Church, and the election of Peter’s successor, cannot be viewed, dissected and discussed through the prism of politics; the only mindset secular commentators can think to use. They lay out the basic differences between political theory and social philosophy on the one hand, and faith, revelation and Divine Law on the other. Both give an excellent beginner’s guide to engaging with Catholic issues at this time but I fear both will fall on deaf ears.

From what I have observed over the years when speaking to atheists, agnostics, well meaning Protestants and even (Lord preserve us) Guardian journalists, it’s not that they don’t understand the role of objective, unchanging truth in Catholic teaching – that is the very thing that upsets them.

In a culture which has broken free of any anchoring principles, religious or other, all that is left is an “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” comparison of truths. But these ‘truths’ are, as the (still current) pope has demonstrated, relative and shifting. Those who still claim for themselves the fruit of the tree of knowledge internalise every discernment of right and wrong. Human discernment alone is a judgement on incomplete knowledge. As a result, moral relativists (no pejorative intended) have to shift their footing in the face of changing circumstances, experience and the competing truths of those around them, ending up in a complicated bull fight with the realities of life.

Their best defences against getting caught on the horns are the secular mottos of ‘dialogue’ and ‘mutual respect’, but the former is disingenuous and the later a sham.

Two opposed points of view cannot be equally true and, if you actually hold to your own ‘truth’ with any kind of sincerity, you can never truly respect another’s falsehood or error. In the light of this, dialogue is the mechanism by which you either begin to try to dismantle the other’s ‘truth’ under a flag of truce or engage in mutual disarmament until neither of you really believe in anything.

This is why the Church inspires such rage. By asserting the reality of the Truth, which exists outside us, it rejects the premise of hypocrisy implied by ‘mutual respect’ and, by refusing to engage in ‘dialogue’ on issues which it holds as settled and certain, it denies those outside the Truth the opportunity to diffuse its importance or reverse its implications. Instead of a bull which can be danced around in different directions to suit the need, truth becomes a brick wall which there is no getting past.

I have have seen this illustrated throughout my education. As an undergraduate studying under the much quoted Dr Tina Beattie, the teaching of John Paul the Great that priestly ordination was reserved by Divine Law to men alone (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) was spoken of with especial bitterness not because of the teaching itself but because it was declared definitive and not open to question or discussion, slamming the door on a cultural war of attrition from within the Church.

It is a great shame that the source of serenity in faith, the certain nature of truth, the rock we cling to in times of trouble and confusion, is encountered by others only as the solid surface against they collide in their disorientation.

New Beginnings & Bonkers Bishops

I had intended to begin writing earlier this week and I had a few ideas. But the Pope’s announcement made thinking, let alone writing, about anything else seem fairly absurd, so I shall save my witterings on firearms for another time.

It’s been an interesting week to be a canon law student. For a few months now we have been told, more than once, about what it was like to study canon law in the years following Vatican II, before the new code of canon law was finished; how everything was being learned in the moment. We are going through much the same thing now. We have exhausted the number of ways we can say that we do know that the Pope can resign.

Now we are left with more questions the more we think about it. What do you call an emeritus Pope? What colour does he wear? Will he say mass in public? Can he preach? Will he have a titular See and a roman church? Can he publish? Does he need an imprimatur? All of these things will have to be addressed, either before Benedict resigns or as the first order of business for his successor. Interesting days ahead in the lecture hall.

But we have already had some interesting lessons to learn from past.

Canon 187 says that anyone can freely resign an ecclesiastical office, though for it to be valid they must be sui compos. This sets up an interesting catch 22 in which, if you’re nuts, you can’t resign. This point was illustrated rather colourfully throughout the middle of the 19th century.

In 1859, James Duggan was named bishop of Chicago at the tender age of 34. He eventually left office 21 years later. Earlier than expected perhaps, but also ten years after he was sent to a purpose built convent in St Louis because he was ‘hopelessly insane’.

And I do notDuggan mean the modern definition of mental illness where he was a bit blue, said some sad things, pushed his dinner away and didn’t take his mood medication. I mean proper, talking to the furniture, eating his slippers and moo-ing at his curia bonkers.

Since there was no penal process in canon law for removing a bishop for being bats, and since he couldn’t resign, not being in his right mind, Chicago had a coadjutor bishop for ten years, whom Duggan easily outlived, being as healthy as the horse he often thought himself to be. Eventually the decision was taken to elevate the See to an archdiocese, allowing Rome to appoint a successor over Duggan’s head.

So whatever we feel about the Pope’s clearly fragile health, we can be grateful he is wise enough to know his own situation, whatever it is, and do what he discerns to be best.

The sentiment from world leaders and media talking heads, who frankly never cared what Pope Benedict said during his reign, is that he is a principled, dignified, humble leader doing something historic and noble. All true.

Many of us in the Church have been wrestling with mixed emotions. The Pope is unquestionably looking unwell. He has certainly acted with dignity and with the greatest care for his office and the whole Church. At the same time, many of us felt as though our parent had resigned. Ill health and age change them, limit them, but it doesn’t lessen our respect for them or the ties that bind us.

When the Pope dies, the funeral mass and other rites offer us a moment of release and, to employ a piece of post-modern, crypto-feminist psychobabble: closure. In this case we have to somehow rend our spiritual certainty and emotional attachment from Benedict, allow it to float free for a time and then let it settle on the next man to emerge on the balcony. Of course we will do it, and of course we all trust that the Pope is right to do what he is doing, he’s the Pope. For now. But it’s harder then it has been.


The real reason for the furore over Bishop WIlliamson’s remarks was that they gave an opportunity for those who oppose the Pope’s gently steering the Barque of Peter back towards its traditional course to oppose without appearing to attack directly.  A couple of hotheads on each side have acted like hotheads, SSPX priests seeming to be closet sedevacantists, or liberal mainstream priests outing themselves as anti-papalists, but the main battle is being savagely fought with the liberals using the secular media as their mercenary (and Boy! will they end up paying if they win).

The liberal “Spirit of Vatican II” Church, the Church of all-powerful Episcopal Conferences and Synods, the Church which seems to hold Ecumenism and Environmentalism to be doctrines as important for salvation as the Real Presence, the Church of the sleek and sinuous Cardinals who saw the light in the 1960s: has realised that it is in great danger of being swept aside by a Benedictine revolution, and that if they cannot capture the young people whom John Paul II made his own, and who seem to respond as well to Benedict XVI, they are doomed.

The weapon they have chosen is to accuse the Pope of one of the great secular sins: Holocaust denial.  It shows their desperation: they have no other choice, for how could they attack the Pope’s Catholicsm.  So they have ubnleashed forces they do not own and cannot control. 

The battle is about the Catholic Church’s place in a realigned Christianity: if the SSPX becomes a part of the Church, and Catholic-Orthodox relations improve, the return to the traditional course will become ever more marked; and as orthodoxy is reestablished within the Catholic Church, those whose views are more heterodox will find themselves increasingly isolated.

So of course they are fighting; but they do not understand what they are unleashing, and what will bring them down: we do.

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.  May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust down to hell Satan and all the evil spirits who roam through the world seeking the ruin of souls.

Irony in the Time of the Olympics

It was a typically British farce that there was a lot of bother over whether drugs cheat Dwain Chambers should represent Britain at the Beijing Olympics. We are going to a country that has a human rights record that the Nazis would have been proud of and we are worried about a fellow who took drugs, served a ban and now would like to compete again?

Speaking of Nazi Germany, I wonder how the BBC would have represented the 1936 games if they were held today? Presumably, Monkey would have been replaced by a cartoon based on Adolf the Aryan and his adventures in prehistoric Germany.

Back to Beijing, however, and I am beginning to think that this should be called the Ironic Olympics. The Daily Telegraph reports that Beijing has been warned about the threat of new performance enhancing drugs, which could be more difficult than ever to detect. Given China’s previous record with drugs – see the scandals involving its swimmers in the 1990s – it is a good job that the threat from the drug is ‘minimal’ (although how does that square with the scientific warning that the drug is being used now?). But, no doubt, the swimmers were acting without the knowledge of the state. China has, after all, a good record of letting its citizens get on with their lives.

6 And Out

Bobby Moore lifts the World Cup in 1966

Bobby Moore lifts the World Cup in 1966

Of all the major sports in the United Kingdom, association football is by far the most sentimental. Witness Frank Lampardturning his eyes to heaven to thank his late mother every time he manages to run onto the pitch without falling over, or the way in which it only takes the death of a blade of grass in the south-west corner of the Kidderminster Harriers’ stadium for every team in the country to don their well worn black armband. Black? More likely grey by now.

Quite why football should be so sentimental is a mystery although it no doubt has a lot to do with the fact that the game has become incredibly rich without really deserving the money; hence, for as much filthy lucre as there is swilling around, there is also a lot of guilt too. Sentimentality is football’s well of showing that it hasn’t lost its soul.

The most recent case of sentimentality comes to us courtesy of West Ham United which, on the 50th anniversary of the debut of Bobby Moore as a Hammers player, has decided to retire his shirt. Or rather, his number: 6.

It is very laudable that we remember the great men and women of old. In Moore’s case, however, his greatness does not come so much from the fact that he was a West Ham player than that for 120 minutes on 30  1966 he had rather a good game with the England side, a game which resulted in the national side winning the FIFA World Cup for the first (and so far only) time.

As a result of this unprecedented triumph, Moore – who died in 1993 – has had a stand named after him at Upton Park as well as two statues of himself erected outside the West Ham ground and Wembley Stadium. That, it seems to me, is a more than perfectly adequate return for being a member of the 11 man squad that brought the World Cup to England.

But West Ham United have now gone further. Indeed, too far. What will they do on the 75th or 100th anniversary of Moore’s debut for the club? Or on the anniversary of the first time he captained the England team? Or played his last game for the club or, most sadly, died? In time it would not r me to find the area around Upton Park, every last street, pub and park bench named after Moore as if he were a god of Rome: Moore the First Time as Captain, Moore the World Cup Victor, Moore Who Took A Fancy To This Oak Tree When It Was In Full Leaf.

The problem with football is that, much like the Senate in Imperial Rome, it just doesn’t know when to stop heaping honours upon a man. At least the Senate could claim necessity arising out of a fear of its members being butchered if it did not acclaim the Emperor so.

If West Ham United want to honour Bobby Moore they should get back to the sources – the games that he played. Removing his shirt number acts against that as it suggests something that is plainly untrue: that he was irreplaceable. As good a player as he was, he was not that. No player ever is. They are turning the man into a myth and, ultimately, removing from the sight of the people the real reason for his being a legend.